BAKAWALI was a beautiful girl who used to frolic with her seven beautiful female friends. Her real name was Narbadaal, named after River Narbada, also known as Narmada, since the girl was a breech baby and Narbada is a West-flowing river (considered rare when compared with other Indian rivers). Once her mother, observing the eight girls coming back from a lake in Amarkantak, said “here comes bakawali” and from that day the girl was called Bakawali, so goes the folklore.
‘Bak’ means a swan and ‘awali’ means a group; so bakawali means a bevy of swans, alluding to eight beautiful girls and the nearby lake, says Farhang-i-Aasifiya, Urdu’s four-volume authentic dictionary. Gul means a flower and the famous tale Gul-i-Bakawali, or the flower of Bakawali, named after the girl, is a daastaan. This highly imaginative daastaan, or a tale full of supernatural elements, has a magic flower that could restore the eyesight of the father of Tajul Mulook, the hero of the tale.
When Tajul Mulook was born his father was told by astrologers never to look at his son or he would go blind. Once he saw his son by a twist of fate and lost his eyesight. The flower of Bakawali was the only remedy for the lost eyesight. Taj decides to get flower to bring back his father’s eyesight. To cut a long story short, with the help of a dev (giant) he returns with the flower, but not before falling in love with Bakawali. But Bakawali is called to the court of Raja Inder, the king of gods and heavens, who casts her into a temple and as ordained by Inder, she is reborn after 12 years. With many twists in the plot and having surmounted many difficulties, Bakawali and Taj are finally reunited.
It is noteworthy that the story has elements both from Iranian as well as Indian folklores and this speaks volumes of the impact of an Indo-Iranian cultural amalgamation that took place in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Gul-i-Bakawali had remained immensely popular for centuries before a Persian version was penned by Izzatullah Bengali in 1134 Hijri/1721-22 AD, though the Persian text has never been published except when Rasheed Hasan Khan included Izzatullah Bengali’s text in his edited and annotated version of Gulzar-i-Naseem in 1995. It was in fact the first ever published Persian text of Izzatullah Bengali’s Gul-i-Bakawali. Rasheed Hasan Khan has mentioned six manuscripts of Persian text preserved in different libraries.
As for Urdu, renowned German orientalist Aloys Sprenger has mentioned various Urdu manuscripts of Gul-i-Bakawali, oldest being handwritten in 1035 Hijri/1625-26 AD. The earliest published version in Urdu prose was penned by Nihal Chand Lahori in 1803 and published in 1804 by Fort William College. Titled Mazhab-i-Ishq, it was a shorter Urdu version of the Persian work and became so popular that different publishers kept it reprinting and till 1950s only Naval Kishor had published 38 editions. It was John Gilchrist who had asked Nihal Chand Lahori to translate the tale in Urdu prose so that it could be used as a text book for teaching Urdu to the British officers. To teach subcontinent’s social, cultural and religious traditions, it was a perfect choice.
Mazhab-i-Ishq was translated into English and Hindi. According to Khalilur Rahman Dawoodi, R.P. Anderson translated Mazhab-i-Ishq into English and it was published from Delhi in 1851 and Bej Singh Verma published a Hindi translation in 1874 from Lucknow.
The tale of Gul-i-Bakawali became even more popular when in 1254 Hijri/1838-39 AD, Pandit Daya Shankar Kaul Naseem Lakhnavi (1811-1845) versified it in Urdu in a form called masnavi and named it Gulzar-i-Naseem, or Naseem’s Garden. It was first published from Lucknow in 1844. Since then, it has been published for the umpteenth time.
Gulzar-i-Naseem is considered one of the best examples of Urdu masnavi. A masnavi is a poetic genre that Muhammad Husain Azad in Aab-i-Hayaat has described as a narration of connected events, requiring a plain and colloquial style. It should be brief, yet idiomatic and as flowing as water, depicting events as if reader is watching them happen, said Azad.
Azad’s definition makes masnavi an art that needs many skills to practice it as a literary genre, but Naseem has wonderfully narrated the tale in perfectly idiomatic Urdu in just 1,521 couplets. The brevity does not hamper the flow of events and the trick is the use of similes, metaphors, tropes and other rhetorical techniques to capture the essence. Though some critics feel that despite showing a masterful use of language, Gulzar-i-Naseem somehow lacks in portraying natural emotions because of a style excessively intricate and stagy. This indeed is because of the Lucknow society that was fond of ornate language and rhetorical techniques.
The most authentic version of Gulazr-i-Naseem is edited and annotated by Rasheed Hasan Khan, published also from Pakistan in 2007. Mazhab-i-Ishq was edited by Khalilur Rahman Dawoodi and published from Lahore in 1961.
Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2023